Williamsburg lacks affordable housing

Housing Partnerships Inc. volunteers repair deteriorated homes in Williamsburg, promote town-gown engagement. COURTESY PHOTO / HOUSING PARTNERSHIPS INC.

More than 39 percent of Virginia households are facing financial hardships. In the City of Williamsburg, that figure rises to 57 percent. This economic reality makes the lack of affordable housing in the area a significant burden for the community.

United Way’s ALICE — an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — Study of Financial Hardship Report released in Spring of 2017 found that in James City County, 37 percent of the population faces financial hardship. The ALICE population represents individuals and families who live above the official federal poverty level, but earn less than the basic cost of living. In the City of Williamsburg, that figure is even steeper: 57 percent of the population qualifies as either below the poverty level or as ALICE.

A James City County Housing Needs Assessment published in June 2015, prepared by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Public Policy Research, found that approximately one-third of households in the county report being cost-burdened in terms of housing. The assessment also found that the supply of affordable homes for first-time buyers is much lower than the potential demand for such homes, and most homes for sale are not affordable for the typical rental household.

The impact of inadequate housing strongly correlates with health. A Housing Virginia Assessment conducted by the Williamsburg Health Foundation in 2017 found that when households are cost-burdened, individuals’ health suffers. A household is considered cost-burdened when housing expenses constitute at least 30 percent of gross income.

According to the report, the more cost-burdened a household is, the lower the life expectancy of its residents. Additionally, the report found that most affordable units in greater Williamsburg are in areas with life expectancy rates below the regional median.

Rehabilitation, redevelopment, reaching out to community

A James City County Housing Conditions Study available on its website issued a set of recommendations to address Williamsburg’s housing crisis. The objectives outlined by the county are to reduce the median combined housing and transportation costs for the average household, to reduce the percentage of severely cost-burdened households in the County and to reduce the number of households living in marginal to substandard conditions by enabling households to upgrade these structures, seek alternatives of better quality or both.

The report recommends three main solutions to these issues: the rehabilitation of existing homes in deteriorated conditions, the redevelopment of existing low-quality mobile homes and sites and planning for long-term new affordable housing development.

“Housing has an ability to affect almost every other social issue — it’s very foundational in that way. Your zip code defines what communities you’re a part of and what communities you’re not considered a part of,” Kat Shaub ’17 said.

While there is no simple fix to the multi-tiered problems of housing in Williamsburg, the Williamsburg-based nonprofit Housing Partnerships, Inc. works to repair and replace substandard housing in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Kat Shaub ’17 is the College’s community housing fellow for the 2017-18 academic year and volunteer coordinator for Housing Partnerships, Inc. Shaub serves as the liaison between Housing Partnerships and the College’s Office of Community Engagement, which contracts her to volunteer full time with a local nonprofit. This is the first year that her specific fellow position has existed.

Shaub was tasked with increasing volunteer engagement by utilizing the College’s student network. She has been interested in the intersection of housing and other social justice issues since her childhood in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where her mother served as executive director of the local branch of Habitat for Humanity.

“Housing has an ability to affect almost every other social issue — it’s very foundational in that way,” Shaub said. “… Your zip code defines what communities you’re a part of and what communities you’re not considered a part of.”

During her four years as a student, Shaub said she found it interesting, for example, that students have a conception of a “townie” as someone who isn’t considered part of the College community despite their status as a permanent residents of Williamsburg.

“These kinds of paradoxical ideas of who belongs here and who doesn’t are really interesting to me,” Shaub said. “Everyone skirts around them and everyone knows that they’re there but doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Shaub said the Williamsburg community essentially breaks down into three separate populations: the student population, the more affluent, typically older population and the working poor. These three populations are not financially stable, Shaub explained; students often rely on family support, the older population relies on pensions, the working poor on minimum-wage jobs.

“Students who live off campus tend to get support from their parents to pay rent, meaning that they can typically afford to pay more than a resident on minimum wage can,” Shaub said. “That incentivizes landlords to deny housing to families and instead raise their cost and sell to students.”

The average rental rate here for a single family, two-bedroom, would be around $900-$1100, and if a house is lived in by six students there paying at least $500 per room, that amounts to $3000 a month, roughly three times the amount a landlord would get from having a single family move in. Reports show that it takes 3.2 minimum-wage workers to make full rent in Williamsburg.

“Students don’t have really any bargaining power with their landlords because of the three-person rule,” Shaub said.

This law encourages landlords to raise rent and inflate prices over time, with student tenants having very little input. Shaub also said that even among people in the Williamsburg community who are aware of the problem, the fact that a lot of the heads of nonprofits are white and middle class means that they’ve had little experience with the issues they hope to solve.

“If everyone in this community is facing a housing problem, certainly there are populations that are facing it worse,” Shaub said. “And certainly those are non-white populations, probably predominantly female, and no one wants to talk about that and that’s really problematic.”

For first time, Housing Partnerships hires student interns

Shaub’s efforts to increase campus engagement have manifested in several ways, with one being the hiring of three student interns who work on data management and communications projects. One of the recently hired interns is Peter Kress ’18. Kress, who studies physics and economics at the College, already had experience in data management. He saw the Housing Partnerships internship as an opportunity to use his skills to give back to the Williamsburg community before he graduated. Kress explained that the work he does as part of his position is aimed toward modernizing the way Housing Partnerships stores information about its donors and individual projects.

“I’m taking paper records, or somewhat incomplete or haphazardly managed spreadsheets of information and standardizing that and uploading it to a single database,” Kress said. “It’s contributing to allowing [Housing Partnerships] to derive a lot more insight about where their money is going and what projects are effective.”

Kress said he hopes that the community engagement outreach efforts Housing Partnerships is undertaking will raise awareness of the issue among the College community.

“Hopefully further engagement from William and Mary will be in the future,” Peter Kress ’18 said.

“Hopefully further engagement from William and Mary will be in the future,” Kress said.

Before she graduated at the end of the last fall semester, communications intern Emily Lynch ’18 was the service vice president for Alpha Phi Omega. It was in that role that Shaub reached out to her, and together Shaub and Lynch set up a service project where APO members volunteered by doing a home repair.

“It helped us get a look at the community in Williamsburg outside of campus, which is something that I don’t think William and Mary students tend to do a lot,” Lynch said. “We tend to get stuck in our bubble of the William and Mary campus.”

Lynch saw  this internship as an ideal opportunity to combine her professional interests with an issue she cared about. As a communications intern, Lynch work on social media promotion, writing donor newsletters and advertising specific events, such as the March 1 film screening and community discussion panel at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg. The nonprofit screened the PBS Frontline documentary, “Poverty, Politics, and Profit: Housing Crisis,” to a room of about 40 community members.

Following the movie, a panel discussed and fielded questions about low-income and affordable housing in Williamsburg. The panel was made up of local leaders engaged in housing reform: House of Mercy Director Shannon Woloszynowski, Economic Development Director for the City of Williamsburg Michele Mixner DeWitt, Manager of the United Way Community Resource Center and Home for Good Charvalla West and Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Williamsburg Health Foundation Kyra Cook.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to show the community, ‘this is what we’re dealing with, and you are a part of it,’” Shaub said.

Shaub said that she hopes her position with Housing Partnerships as a housing fellow will allow her to bring the topic of the housing crisis to the forefront of discussion and to make students at the College think about their role in how people live in the greater Williamsburg community.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to show the community, ‘this is what we’re dealing with, and you are a part of it,’” Shaub said.


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